Monday, November 7, 2011

The things best learned by failure

Last week, we had a few problems with our steam bending as we started work on the pieces that had a tighter bend at the turn of the bilge.  Throughout the whole process I'd read just about everything there was to read about steam bending, at least as far as laying in frames "hot" - that is to say, right from the steam box into the boat.  But as I returned to the great and venerable texts from which I'd drawn much of my information I discovered that I had wholly discounted a different method, which the late great Howard I. Chappelle describes as "great for building single-handed".  Cool - that sounds about right for our skill level!  And on reading, I kicked myself for the simplicity of the most basic concept that had, until that moment, completely eluded me in all my research - that the hot bend was not, in fact the end-all, be-all of steam bent frames.  All at once I remembered why I pine so for the guidance of experienced builders that simply don't seem to exist in my neck of the woods, and despite all of my study, went back to feeling like the relative novice I am.

The long and the short of it is this:  a piece of wood, once steam bent, has very little capacity to be bent further.  But it can be unbent a considerable amount.  If there is not a little bell ringing in your head as it did in mine, you're clearly not obsessed with this subject matter enough.  The end state?  If you over bend your stock, you can 'unroll' it into place in the boat - and because time isn't a factor in this "cold framing" you can dally all you like.  You can also bend just about all of your framing stock at the same time, put the pieces aside and use them when you need them.  No need to worry about the stock seasoning while you take for sodding ever on each task - no.  No need to rush and rush and lose valuable stock and time screwing up.  Damn I hate how age-old boat builders solved all these issues.

For every instance of listening to someone complain about the complexities of wooden boatbuilding, there is an example of extremely rare or long-dead experience reaching back to slap me for giving the negative any credence.  The simple fact is that wooden boats lasted so long because the technology behind them - including the ability to build them quickly and cheaply - improved over time.  I believe this even continues today with "stitch-and-glue" methods and other ways that people are trying to make the process of new construction 'easier' with modern materials.  The fact is that those old timers knew what they were doing - and with complete respect - that doesn't mean they were smarter than we are today, just that they paid attention to lessons learned and valuable shortcuts that same time and money.


There aren't really any old-timer boatbuilders here in Hampton Roads.  Or at least there don't seem to be.  Most have retreated to remote sanctuaries like Deltaville, where wooden boats are still built as a trade.  There just aren't any yards or shops here dedicated to the art, ergo no skilled tradesmen.  But that doesn't mean there aren't folks who think of themselves as those old-timers.

Some years ago I met a gentleman - who shall remain nameless because deep down he was a good person - who proliferated an image of himself around town as a master boatbuilder.  He liked to use old sayings and catch phrases along with regurgitated bits of knowledge he picked up over the years, and assert that he could build you any boat you wanted, but at the end of the day he hadn't built anything more than a plywood dinghy.  He uses his credentials - mainly his salty appearance (long white beard, etc) and jargoned lingo - to ply his trade as a maker of yacht fixtures and do-dads.  To this day, when I express the sentiment that there aren't any old school boatbuilders in town, someone will invariably chime in with his name and gleaming recommendations about his abilities - despite the fact that they've never seen a boat he's built.  They always seem puzzled that I've met him, tried working with him, and once the BS was aside there was nothing there I couldn't figure out myself by the same methods he'd use (principally WoodenBoat magazine and the primer texts on the subject).

I bring up the story because I've noticed that there are far more of this type of people around than true-blooded boat builders.  Everybody knows someone they'll label as 'salty' but I'd wager that no more than 1 in 20 have any idea what they're doing on a caravel planked hull.

I'll stick to the books until that 1 in 20 comes knocking - which they occasionally do.  Too bad I have to support the rigamaroll of the other 19 when they come around, too.


No comments: